The Sleeping God
by Richard Ong
|part 2 of 5|
Julio stirred in his sleep. He heard his name being called from afar. It was like a howling wind bearing down on him, calling him and tugging at him. He drew the blanket up over his head and tried to force the words out of his mind. He screamed and pleaded with it and he was answered in laughter, like a rolling thunder that shook the ground beneath him.
“Leave me alone!”
He woke up in darkness but the ground continued to vibrate. Then it stopped. The air was still. Not a sound of life could be heard from the deadwoods.
Julio stretched and yawned. His nightmares were getting worse. The first one started the night his grandfather became ill. The healer gave him some medicine and he was better for a time though his nightmares continued. He told no one else but Lucinda of his dreams.
Each subsequent nightmare was stronger and more intense than the first. In each one of them Paz, the god of fire and life, called out to him. He never saw his face, just his shadow. Like all other children, he learned from the holy book that Paz once walked amongst men in order to teach them how to nurture the life-giving soil around them. Paz provided everything that their village would ever need and it was true. Their crops were always abundant and there was no reason for anyone to venture out of the village.
The elders promised the people that as long as they remained faithful to Paz, no harm would befall them. But should anyone try to walk out of the village and step onto Paz’s domain, fire would rain down from the heavens and molten river would flow and overrun their homes.
Everyone knew where Paz lived. Everyone could see how high his kingdom was and how it overlooked and protected the village. Everyone also knew that it could destroy them at any time Paz suspected a transgression from the unfaithful. But no one had seen his face. Even in his nightmares, Julio could only see his shadow.
Julio sat up and lit the lamp Lucinda had given him. He illuminated the deadwoods with its light; an eerie glow reflected the image of hundreds of gnarled branches older than the village and leafless as the air was devoid of any sound of life.
He set the lamp down and rummaged through his pack. He had been walking in the deadwoods for days and he was hungry. He took the last of his tepes bread and broke it in half. He tried to still the grumbling of his belly as he savored the meager fare.
He heard another rumble and the earth shook beneath him.
Julio clasped his hands hard and fell on his knees.
He prayed. “Please, my great lord Paz. Please forgive me. I only meant to save my grandfather. Please do not be angry. Please do not punish the village for what I have done. They know nothing of it. But if my grandfather were to pass on, we would lose someone that we love most dearly. Please, Paz, don’t take me with you tonight. Let me walk the path unharmed. I want to come home again.”
The earth became still and Julio gave his thanks. He quickly packed his bags and illuminated the ground with the lamp until he found the black trail that was the footprints of Paz and set out to walk upon it through and out of the deadwoods towards the mountain of his god.
* * *
Dawn was breaking when he emerged from the dead forest. Mist had formed on the ground and covered the path ahead of him. For a time, Julio was afraid that he would never find it again. Lucinda would worry about him for weeks until a search party discovered his remains buried under a ton of ash and rocks, for surely Paz could never forgive him for lingering too long on the sacred ground.
And what of grandfather? His life depended on his timely return. What did he really expect to find on the other side? Rumors, mostly. Myths and legends at best. Before he became ill, grandfather used to go to his room before bedtime and tell him stories of a large and mysterious community — many times larger than their village — that existed on the other end of the blackened path that was Paz’s footprints.
His father, when he was still alive, called it a “city.” He was a deeply religious man and always took his son to the temple every other day. He said, “Listen, Julio. Listen carefully to what I have to say.”
He would take several breaths of air, for talking tired him too much in his last days. His health continued to decline over the years ever since that day when Paz rained fire down the village. His mother, on the other hand, did not survive.
His father continued: “Do you know why no one has ever set foot outside our kingdom? I will tell you this: Paz, who provides everything that we need, is a jealous god. The city, on the other hand, is a place for heathens. It is also a great source of evil, wealth and gluttony.”
He gripped Julio’s shoulders till they hurt. He was a strong man in spite of his ill health. “I’ve heard people in our kingdom whisper about the city of evil, my son. Soon these rumors will reach your innocent ears and tempt you. You must resist! So I am telling you now as the future leader of our village and my only son, that you have an obligation to set an example and never to stray from our path to salvation.
“It is written from the records kept by our elders that Paz will ensure abundance of our food and water for as long as we remain faithful to him. These records also remind us that the last time someone sought solace outside the gates in search of this abominable city, there was a great rumble from the mountain of god and the light from the sky went out. There was thunder and lightning. Fire rained down on the village, burning everything it touched. Many lives were lost including that of your mother. Of all my wives she was the one I hold closest to my heart.”
“But who dared walk out of the village gates and anger Paz?” the frightened Julio asked, holding his blanket tight in his tiny fists.
The glow of candlelight cast an eerie, undulating shadow on his father’s cheeks as the pupils of his eyes seemed to burn with the flame reflected on them. His mouth opened to form the words to name the man that doomed a village on the day he was born.
Julio heard a sound which brought his thoughts back to the present. From out of the mist emerged a grey-hooded figure bearing down on him. He drove a cart pulled by an enormous black bull whose nostrils flared with dust and smoke kicked up by its powerful thundering hooves.
The menacing figures showed no sign of stopping until the last possible moment when the driver shouted something and pulled hard on the harness. The angry bull dug its heels onto the rocky soil and the cart screeched to a halt. Its bolts threatened to pop out and pull the vehicle apart.
The tall, grey-hooded figure reached up to uncover his head. His long hair was an unruly shock of white and hundreds of cracks scarred his face. His eyes seemed to smolder as he glared down at the boy who had interrupted his journey.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Ong